For the third straight year, innovation is getting a boost in the PA Wilds. Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central & Northern PA are partnering with local business development organizations for another iteration of their Big Idea Contest in this vast and exciting region.
The 2024 pitch contest will cover the Pine Creek Valley and PA Grand Canyon landscape, as well as the Dark Skies landscape, which covers Cameron, Clinton, Lycoming, Tioga and Potter Counties. This area features some of Pennsylvania’s most stunning natural geography and charming towns.
“Our outreach efforts target communities, aiming to galvanize small businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs by highlighting the extensive network of partners in economic development eager to propel their innovative ideas forward,” says Cathy Von Birgelen, executive director of The Ben Franklin Learning Center. “The diversity and scope of applications received for the last two years were impressive, reflecting a tapestry of business models spanning agriculture to technology-driven products and services.”
“Notably, the 2022 contest drew over 50 applications, while the 2023 edition saw a surge, receiving over 70 applications,” she continues. “This surge indicates an increasing number of businesses tapping into the region’s network of partners, gaining access to essential entrepreneurial programs and ongoing guidance.”
Esperanzo Wilcox was a co-winner of the 2022 Big Idea Contest, providing a boost to his enterprise, the PA Mushroom Company. But beyond the cash prize, it was the connections and coaching he received that have been essential over the last two years.
By entering the Big Idea contest, you have no choice but to take a macro view of your business and put together a program that is just going to help you excel.Esperanzo Wilcox, PA Mushroom Company
“What the contest really did was connect us with knowledgeable people with the business acumen to help us elevate the business,” says Wilcox, who is based in Clarion County. “We were able to take a step back and look at the whole picture — to see what we wanted to do, what we wanted to represent, and what we wanted our brand to be built on.”
Wilcox is a perfect example of someone who had a great concept, but needed help turning that into a sustainable, job-creating business. Getting people like him to the next level is the guiding light of these events.
“Really, this contest series was about demystifying the process of attracting investment and scaling a good idea,” explains Taboline Enos, executive director of the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship. “We wanted to change the mindset that ‘technology’ is purely computers and information-sharing software, and elevate that it can be a broader innovation in a particular field, whether it’s a new product or process, or a technological endeavor. PA Mushroom Company is investigating the scientific aspects of foraged mushrooms from the region and also looking at applications in food and medicine.”
Since the contest, PA Mushroom Company purchased additional equipment, reworked their branding, and expanded their line of value-added products, which features mushroom jerky and mushroom gummies, and broadened their educational programming. Most essentially, they purchased a commercial building which will allow them to ramp up production and host events — the space is a former restaurant so it is ready to showcase guest chefs.
“By entering the Big Idea contest, you have no choice but to take a macro view of your business and put together a program that is just going to help you excel,” says Wilcox. “Whether you’re a finalist or just one of the participants in the initial process, I think every step of it is very beneficial.”
Local artist and educator Julie Mader was already tapping into local business development resources when she heard about the Big Idea Contest via her relationship with the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship. In fact, she had recently completed a startup bootcamp at the Penn State Small Business Development Center. That program resulted in a business plan, but it was still a process to prepare for the competition. Mader hoped to take her work teaching art to seniors and turn it into a business. Her company, Caregiver’s Artbox, seeks to scale traditional art learning classes via a subscription service that provides guidance and all the supplies needed to produce an end product.
“The preparation for the competition is pretty intense,” she recalls. “You really have to think through a lot of things that hadn’t occurred to you before, so it presents a lot of questions.”
Mader was accepted into the TechCelerator program with Ben Franklin during this same time period.
“The day that I went to the meeting over in Warren that told us about the Big Idea Contest was the same day I got my acceptance into the Techcelerator program,” she recalls. “So I had the wonderful advantage of having 10 weeks of classes with Ben Franklin staff and being able to think through a lot of these questions via that program.”
After winning, she didn’t rush right out and spend the money. It’s actually still sitting in her account,
“I’m not touching it until the right time,” she insists.
Fortunately, the advantages of winning go far beyond the funds. For example, she plans to build out an online learning component to her business, and is able to reach out to experts at Ben Franklin for help designing the platform and choosing the right software.
“I mean, the checks are wonderful, but there’s just so much to learn, “ she says. “The support that you get is just amazing.”
Looking at the list of winning ideas from the first two contests — everything from a tool for on-site electricians, to software for local governments, to a coffee company that advocates for the blind community — is a testament to the community.
“These are some very different ideas that showcase exactly what we had hoped: that innovation can look different at different kinds of businesses,” says Enos. “There are a lot of great ideas in the PA Wilds region worth investing in.”
As Mader’s path shows, the support network for rising entrepreneurs in the state goes far beyond just the Big Idea Contests.
“In rural PA, where everyone is used to bootstrapping and working together, there is what many of us refer to as a ‘no wrong door’ policy,” says Enos. “No matter which provider you first reach out to, they will make sure you get connected to the others. The Small Business Development Centers, PennTAP, the PA Wilds, Ben Franklin, our Local Development District partners — any one of these organizations can help get you started on taking your ‘big idea’ to the next level.”
If you’re a rural innovator or small-business owner, check out the Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ Big Idea contest. Also be sure to mark down these dates:
January 24, 2024: PA Wilds Big Idea Contest Informational Webinar
This story was created in partnership with The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship.
LEE STABERT is editor in chief of Keystone Edge.
LEAD IMAGE: Esperanzo Wilcox of the PA Mushroom Company, co-winner of the 2022 Big Idea Contest.